The End of Christianity in America?

If you want to keep an enterprise of any sort alive, you have to keep selling it. You must never assume that people understand why you exist, what you believe, or where you’re going. Every day is a new opportunity to present your vision – and you must do it in a way that makes sense to your audience.

D.A. Carson has said it something like this:  One generation believes in something. The next generation assumes it. The third generation forgets it, and the fourth generation denies it. I think he’s on to something. Culture varies from place to place. Some are ahead of, or behind the curve. Overall though, I think America is roughly in the same place with Christianity.

  1. The generation of my grandparents would be the first generation in this case. Think people born in the early 1900s. These people knew what they believed. They knew their bible. They knew their hymns. The country as a whole was churched. You didn’t have stores open on Sunday and everyone knew the Lord’s Prayer. These people believed. They were the solid foundation of our country, our families and the church.
  2. Call the next generation those born roughly in the 40s and 50s. They knew their bibles pretty well too, because everywhere they went, they heard it. They went to a friend’s house, and expected a prayer before the meal. Not all of the country was churched, but all were familiar with and accepting of church. Most places were still closed on Sundays because even if the shop owners didn’t care, they knew that much of their clientele did. Much of society knew the Lord’s Prayer and the more popular hymns because they went to church for a lot of events. It was like knowing the national anthem from going to ball games. Christians of this generation were no less Christian than the previous generation, though they probably represented a smaller segment of the population than their parents did. Many in this generation started new churches. The denominational model was too dry for them. They didn’t feel their parents’ churches were equipped to reach the younger set, and they were right. So they started their churches with like-minded Christians who grew up in the faith, and life was good. They did their kind of music and wore their kinds of clothes, and the non-denominational movement was born. The trouble is, danger was brewing. These people assumed that because they knew their bible and their songs, everyone else did as well. They were wrong.
  3. They next generation was born in the 70s and 80s. Some of these people knew their bibles, but far less than before. They knew the popular verses that made it on t-shirts and coffee mugs, but didn’t know how they all fit together. These people also grew up with a massive explosion of malls. Many stores were now open on every day of the week because the unchurched people were many, and the churched people didn’t really have a problem with it. Hymns were now ancient history, unless a contemporary Christian artist did a cover of one. Few in this generation knew the Lord’s prayer or the national anthem. They could probably pledge allegiance to the flag, because that was still actively taught in schools. Those who were Christians (far from a majority by now) knew all the songs in their churches. Groups like Integrity, Vineyard and Hillsong made it easy to have common songs among our diverse churches. We believed in God and had many of the same sermons the earlier generations had, but there was something missing. People growing up in this generation were like sand castles. We could look many different ways – some quite ornate and some ordinary – but little waves were wearing away our foundation. And if a big one came along, many were wiped out overnight. Because the previous generation assumed everyone was a Christian and everyone knew the basics, they didn’t pass them on in the same way they received them. Books, sermons and classes on the foundational doctrines of our faith were replaced by Christian self-help books. Instead of learning how to be holy, we learned instead how to be happy and healthy. This was the generation we got nailed with an explosion of national “Christian” teachers pushing their version of Christianity that may have been well-intentioned but was also quite self-serving. We had a lot of options. We could shop at a hundred stores at any hour of the day. We could hop between any of the 10 new churches that started each month. We could pick what type of books and teachings satisfied our needs. But we could just as easily walk away. A bad relationship, a health problem, financial difficulties, addictions and any number of other struggles were enough to knock us off course. Very easily we would be swept into the sea. We joke about going to “Bedside Baptist”, or say that we find God while we’re out fishing, or that we’ve decided to do “home church”. And unlike previous generations, these answers were not questioned because we have all learned to be tolerant. You see, this is the generation that forgot. They have these faint memories of growing up in church, but the memories are more emotions than they are beliefs. Many people don’t know what to do with this, so they do… nothing.
  4. The fourth generation is in their teens today. They have grown up with two or more homes, and even more parents. They have probably been to a half-dozen churches, but would call none of them “their church”. They are incredibly fragmented because their parents’ lives were so fragmented. Mom and dad got divorced, the economy caused them to pick up and move a number of times, and they have never really gotten connected to anyone anywhere. They are islands unto themselves. They have seen abuse and addiction first hand and it’s no big deal. That’s just life, as they see it. They have never heard a hymn in their life. They cannot name any Christian doctrines. They don’t feel any of this is important because no one has taught them that it is. Much of this generation has never seen the inside of a church. Even weddings and funerals are often done in other settings. They might go to an Easter or Christmas service, though they’re not sure why. It probably has something to do with making grandma and grandpa happy. Most of these people could not identify a bible verse amongst a line-up of platitudes from fortune cookies. Their iPods and internet history are incredibly diverse. Each of them is a subculture unto themselves. Most are not Christian, even in a vague sense. Of those who do identify themselves as Christian, the vast majority will walk away from their faith within their first weeks away from home. Not because someone convinced them that God was not real, but because they were never convinced of him in the first place. Since the message they have received has been so watered down, they deny it entirely.

The first generation believes, the second assumes, the third forgets, and the fourth denies. I think as a country we’re somewhere in between the forgetting and denying stages of Christianity. I suppose the good news is that is when reformation can happen. A new drive that makes a compelling enough case for Christianity could create the next version of strong believers. But we could just as easily sit where we are for a few more decades. It all depends on whether those of us who still care are willing to do anything about it. Are we willing to change our church models? Are we willing to figure out what it takes to reach today’s culture? Or are we going to assume that everyone is like us?

QUESTION: If you accept Carson’s framework, where do you think the Christian culture of America is right now?